Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 4, 2009

Mercedes Sosa, dead at 74

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 5:01 pm

Award-Winning Singer Mercedes Sosa Dies at 74

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009 7:54 AM

Mercedes Sosa, an Argentine singer who emerged as a electrifying voice of conscience throughout Latin America for songs that championed social justice in the face of government repression, died today at a medical clinic in Buenos Aires. She was 74 and had liver, kidney and heart ailments.

With a rich contralto voice, Ms. Sosa was foremost a compelling singer whose career spanned five decades. She performed with entertainers as varied as rock star Sting, the Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés and folk singer Joan Baez, who said she was so moved by Ms. Sosa’s “tremendous charisma” and emotive firepower that she once dropped to her knees and kissed Ms. Sosa’s feet.

Ms. Sosa’s towering artistry, which led to several Latin Grammy Awards, belied her physical dimensions. Short, round, dark-skinned and often dressed in peasant clothing, Ms. Sosa was affectionately nicknamed “La Negra” (the Black One) as an homage to her indigenous ancestry.

It was a term of endearment that followed her throughout the Spanish-speaking world, said ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter, who has written about Ms. Sosa. “It’s hard to overestimate her popularity and importance as a standard-bearer of folk music and political engagement through folk music,” he said.

Ms. Sosa once declared that “artists are not political leaders. The only power they have is to draw people into the theater.” While not defining herself as a political activist, Ms. Sosa asserted herself in the “nueva canción” musical movement of the 1960s and 1970s that blended traditional folk rhythms with politically charged lyrics about the poor and disenfranchised.

This “new song” movement, formed by singers, poets and songwriters with Marxist leanings, cast light on the struggle against government brutality and the plight of the downtrodden throughout the hemisphere. Ritter said, much of the nueva canción songs favored by Ms. Sosa “drew upon the rich heritage of Latin American poetry and literature to score their political messages.” This, he said, gave it a far-more enduring fascination than protest songs in the United States during that period, whose “blunt, direct lyrics were part of their political efficacy, but also limited their long term poetic appeal.”

Here are the lyrics of “We’re Still Singing,” which she sang accompanied by the large Andean drum called the bombo: “I was killed a thousand times. I disappeared a thousand times, and here I am, risen from the dead. . . . Here I am, out of the ruins the dictatorship left behind. We’re still singing.” Ms. Sosa came under official harassment and intimidation by the right-wing, nationalist junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The government was responsible for the deaths and disappearances of an estimated 30,000 real and perceived leftists, and Ms. Sosa transformed her sold-out concerts into rallies against the abuses of power.

Her songs were banned from Argentine radio and television, and she courted arrest by singing anthems of agrarian reform such as “When They Have the Land” at one performance in the university city of La Plata. Many in attendance were arrested by security forces, and Ms. Sosa was publicly humiliated by an officer who walked onstage and conducted a body search.

Ms. Sosa scheduled more concerts in the face of threats against her. They were subsequently canceled when anonymous bomb threats were called in. The military governor of Buenos Aires prohibited her from further performances. Unable to earn a living or speak out as an opponent of the regime, she moved in exile to Europe in 1979 and lived for three years in France and Spain.

She recalled this as a dark period for her artistically, and at times her voice failed. “It was a mental problem, a problem of morale,” she told the New York Times. “It wasn’t my throat, or anything physical. When you are in exile, you take your suitcase, but there are things that don’t fit. There are things in your mind, like colors and smells and childhood attitudes, and there is also the pain and the death you saw. You shouldn’t deny those things, because to do so can make you ill.”

Ms. Sosa returned to Argentina shortly before the dictatorship crumbled, and she found that her popularity had risen to a dramatic new peak. At home, her concerts attracted tens of thousands of ticket buyers, and her albums sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Abroad, she was a star attraction as well, and a political celebrity. She received a 10-minute standing ovation for a 1987 concert at Carnegie Hall and received ecstatic reviews when appearing in other major American cities, including Boston and Washington. She broadened her repertoire to include rock, pop and cabaret songs, always sung in her native language.

Esquire magazine noted, “Your Spanish may or may not be good, but Mercedes Sosa requires no translation. Hers is the song of all those who have overcome their fear of singing out.”

Haydée Mercedes Sosa was born July 9, 1935, in San Miguel de Tucumán in rural northwestern Argentina. She was of mixed Indian and French ancestry, and her parents were day laborers.

She said the geography and culture of the area was also crucial to her development. It was desolate, with far greater influence from the indigenous culture of nearby Bolivia than distant, cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. She called it “an advantage for someone who wanted to be a folk singer,” and at 15, she won a local radio station’s amateur-hour contest.

In the late 1950s, she and her first husband, guitarist Manuel Oscar Matus, with whom she had a son, moved to Mendoza, a city at the foot of the Andes. There, they helped form the new-music movement that fused folk rhythms with the language and politics of the moment, and wrote an artistic manifesto as well. Her international touring career followed her appearance at an important folklore festival in Cosquín in 1965.

Not a songwriter, she was a keen interpreter of others’ works. The Chilean writer Violeta Parra was responsible for Ms. Sosa’s signature song, “Gracias a la Vida” (Thanks to Life), a number more nostalgic that political. Ms. Sosa collaborated on two acclaimed albums in the early 1970s with composer Ariel Ramírez on lyricist Félix Luna on the albums “Cantata Sudamericana” ( South American Cantata) and “Mujeres Argentinas” (Argentine Women).

She received a Latin Grammy Award for Best Folk Album in 2000 for Ramírez’s “Misa Criolla,” and again for “Acústico” in 2003 and “Corazón Libre” in 2006. She continued to win over younger audiences by incorporating the music of rock singer-songwriters such as Argentina’s Charly García and Sting, whose song “They Dance Alone” paid tribute to the disappeared in Argentina.

June 9, 2009

Cocaleros: a documentary about Bolivia

Filed under: Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

May 13, 2009

The difference between Bush and Obama

Filed under: Latin America,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

by Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist.

(Hat tip to http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine)

April 14, 2009

Oblivion

Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 4:28 pm

Opening at the Film Forum in New York tomorrow, Heddy Honigmann’s “Oblivion” (El Olvido) is a penetrating study of poverty in Peru, particularly its impact on children who scrape by as shoeshine boys, jugglers, gymnasts, and musicians on the busy streets of Lima. They are like the children you can spot selling candy in New York subways or flowers on the streets of Los Angeles, but with much greater odds against them. Despite the grimness of the topic, the documentary is often very funny as well as always lyrical.

Honigmann, a child of Holocaust survivors who was born in Lima in 1951, got the idea for the movie from a waiter:

A few years ago it was a waiter, at work in a fancy restaurant, who was the inspiration for the rediscovery of my city. This waiter, whom I recognized after many years away from Peru, told me how he has survived the humiliation and hardship by smiling. Others manage to hold up their heads by silently making fun of the class that oppresses them, remembering with pride that they have survived both economic crisis and political terror from both sides. And some survive by entertaining car drivers with acrobatics, hoping for a few coins.

All my characters are first-class actors. Hardly any of them have ever been in a museum. Nor have they heard of Marcel Proust or Maria Callas; yet all the people you’ll meet in Oblivion are born poets.

The characters in “Oblivion” are either like the waiter, adult veterans of decades of misrule who are reflective about Peruvian realities, or the children who are barely old enough to understand what is happening to them.

Honigmann interviews the waiter at the restaurant where he points out the table that Alan Garcia used to sit at. Notwithstanding the fact that Garcia as a good tipper, his presidency was regarded by the waiter and all other adults in the movie as a complete disaster for working people. This includes a bartender who whips up a Pisco Sour, a kind of national cocktail. As he mixes together the brandy, lime juice, egg whites and native brandy, he reflects on the greed and treachery every president in his lifetime has demonstrated.

She follows the waiter home to his modest home where she continues to interview him and now his wife. She asks her if she has ever been to the restaurant to enjoy the meal that Garcia favored. No, they could not afford it. After a while, the waiter puts on a tape of a local singer from his province in the North, a place he was forced to leave because of a lack of jobs. (Lima has grown 16-fold since the 1950s because of economic hardship in the countryside.) The singer’s lyrics tell a tale of army-inflicted terror on villagers, an obvious reference to the dirty war conducted by Fujimori and something deeply personal to the waiter, two of whose cousins were murdered in his native village.

By coincidence, the movie arrives at the Film Forum just 8 days after former president Fujimori was convicted of crimes against humanity, as the Washington Post reported:

Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was convicted Tuesday of “crimes against humanity” and sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in killings and kidnappings by security forces during his government’s battle against leftist guerrillas in the 1990s.

The verdict, delivered by a three-judge panel on a police base outside Lima where Fujimori has been held throughout the trial, marked the first time that an elected head of state has been extradited back to his home country, tried and convicted of human rights violations.

Human rights activists called it a precedent-setting verdict that upheld the ideal that violent abuses cannot be ignored under the banner of fighting terrorism.

“This is a sentence for all the innocents killed in the dirty war,” said Gisela Ortiz, whose brother was among a group taken from a Lima university and executed in 1992 by a military death squad under Fujimori.

While nobody would gainsay the need for punishing Fujimori for his crimes, true justice would require a social and economic transformation of a Peru that has condemned its children to work as beggars in its streets by the thousands. Death by malnutrition or disease is as permanent as one brought on by a soldier’s bayonet.

Despite their hardships, the children in “Oblivion” put on a brave face and do the best they can to survive, if not enjoy their crafts. Clearly, they juggle balls or perform cartwheels in the streets partially for the same reason that other children do so for play. Wearing a big smile, one young girl tells Honigmann that she has dreams to be an Olympics gymnast one day. Perhaps the greatest crime of the permanent Peruvian government that rules on behalf of the white upper classes is that it effectively prevents such dreams from being realized.

I watched “Oblivion” last night after spending an hour preparing a scanned version of José Carlos Mariátegui’s out-of-print “Seven Interpretative Essays of Peruvian Reality” that will eventually be uploaded to the Mariátegui Internet archive. Although Mariátegui was politically active in the 1920s, his critique of Peruvian society would be the same as the waiters and bartenders in Honigmann’s movie. In the 1929 essay titled “Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint“, Mariátegui wrote:

In Peru, the white aristocrat and bourgeois scorn the popular and the national. They consider themselves white above all else. The petty bourgeois mestizo imitates their example. The Lima bourgeoisie fraternizes with the Yankee capitalists, even with their mere employees at the Country Club, the Tennis Club, and in the streets. The Yankee can marry the native senorita without the inconvenience of differences in race or religion, and she feels no national or cultural misgivings in preferring marriage with a member of the invading race.

In contrast to the “white aristocrat and bourgeois”, Honigmann demonstrates her affection for and solidarity with the “popular and the national”. For a glimpse into Peruvian reality that rates about as high as any political documentary that I have seen on Latin America, a trip to the Film Forum to see “Oblivion” is very highly recommended.

February 26, 2009

The End of Poverty?

Filed under: Africa,Film,imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

Scheduled for theatrical release in September 2009, Philippe Diaz’s “The End of Poverty?” was a feature presentation at the 2008 African Diaspora Film Festival. After watching this documentary last night, I feel confident in stating that there is no sharper critic of the capitalist system in the film world than Philippe Diaz. This amazing movie not only explains how global inequality has its roots in 1492, but also allows the victims of “Western civilization” to speak for themselves. Indeed, the movie will remind you of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous reply to a Western reporter who asked him what he thought of Western civilization. He answered, “I think it would be a good idea.”

The documentary begins by putting third world poverty into historical context. Although it wisely draws upon expert witnesses indisposed to openly use Marxist terminology, there is little doubt that the movie’s implicit inspiration for its analysis of colonialism and dependency comes from chapter thirty one of Volume One of Capital, The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, where Karl Marx writes:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

In keeping with his determination to allow the victims of this process to speak for themselves, Diaz goes to Potosi where miners escort him into a section of the mine that commemorates its earliest victims. (It should be mentioned that Diaz, unlike Michael Moore, does not interject himself into the film. That, plus his revolutionary politics, distinguishes him from the popular but essentially liberal documentary maker.) Quoting Eduardo Galeano, one miner states that the silver extracted from the mines could have been used to build a bridge from Potosi to Europe. He adds that a bridge could have also been made with the bones of the miners who perished in the silver mines-an estimated 8 million succumbed to the hardships imposed by the Spanish rulers. Another miner, clearly educated in his nation’s class history rather than its classrooms, observes that the mita, a form of Incan forced labor adapted to the emerging capitalist system, required miners to live and work underground for periods of up to six months.

Even for those who are well-schooled in the history of imperialism, including myself if you will allow me a moment of immodesty, there are some revelatory moments. One expert points out that the Dutch lacked the resources and the capital to develop capitalism on its own. It “jump started” its economy by colonizing the islands now known as Indonesia. I was far more informed about the relationship between Great Britain and the slave trade outlined in Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery” but now feel strongly motivated to learn more about the Dutch thieves commemorated in those Rembrandt paintings.

“The End of Poverty?” conducts interviews with workers and peasants across the planet, from Bolivia to Brazil in Latin America to Tanzania and Kenya in Africa. As inured as I am to the brutality of imperialism, I practically bolted from my chair to locate a phone number or email address for an agribusiness named the Dominion Group that has made life hell for Kenyans. Having lived on and worked the same farmlands for hundreds of years, they were robbed of their livelihood when Dominion dammed a nearby river in order to irrigate their legume crop that was strictly for export. In a fine article that appeared in the Nation Magazine, Laura Flanders detailed the impact:

Dominion Farms, an affiliate of Dominion Group, based in Oklahoma, moved into Siaya in 2003 through an arrangement with the local and state authorities. After several years of negotiations, Dominion CEO Calvin Burgess leased public land from the government on a pledge to develop a high-tech fish and rice farming operation that he promised would bring jobs, reduce hunger and make Siaya and neighboring Bondo provinces the “breadbasket” of Kenya. (In the United States, Dominion builds for-profit prisons and federal buildings.)

Until Dominion came along, the people of this part of Kenya made their living drawing water from the local Yala River. They raised goats and cows and farmed small plots of land. Widows and children harvested papyrus and sisal from the nearby swamp from which they crafted rough mats and baskets. A major habitat for endangered fish and birds, the Yala Swamp is recognized by environmentalists as one of the richest and most delicate ecosystems in East Africa. The half-million or so local residents weren’t rich but they were self-sufficient, says Owiti. Now they’re forced to live on the generosity of churches or on the corporation’s handouts.

“Development should not bring harm to the local community,” said Owiti at the World Social Forum. But that, she says, is just what has happened. In the last four years, Dominion Farms has built a dam on the Yala River, drained much of the swamp, subjected the fields to aerial spraying and drowned not only public land but, residents claim, private property without legal authority.

Dominion offered residents compensation to leave their homes (generally 45,000 Kenyan shillings, approximately $64). Many, like Salome, a local grandmother, refused, but their land was submerged anyway. “I grew cabbages, I made mats, I planted maize and millet. Now all my fields are flooded,” said Salome.

For those that remain, the company’s dam blocks access to the river, the one available source of fresh water. “Now they want us to use standing water,” explained Paul Obeira, another Yala Swamp resident. But with the standing water comes infection. Malaria and typhoid rates are rising. Now aerial spraying is killing livestock. “I have lost 110 goats and our women are suffering from health problems because of the spraying,” added Obeira. Dominion Farms has applied for a permit to spray the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in this part of the world because of its negative health consequences.

Although Diaz’s documentary does not mention him anywhere, it is obvious that the title of the film is a rebuttal to Jeffrey Sachs’s “The End of Poverty”. Sachs was the architect of the neo-liberal “shock therapy” that ultimately led to the revolt that placed Evo Morales in power. In more recent years, Sachs has positioned himself as a prophet of global equality and has toured with U2′s Bono in well-publicized missions to lift up the natives. Obviously, unless the capitalist system is abolished, there is little that Sachs’s measures can do. Indeed, that is the whole point of the movie.

Ironically, Bono has just moved his music-publishing business from Ireland, one of Europe’s most underdeveloped capitalist countries, to Netherlands in order to shelter its song-writing royalties from taxation. Ireland now joins the ranks of countries alongside Java that have been screwed by the Dutch.

Jeffrey Sachs is one of Columbia University’s most visible “public intellectuals” and now runs the The Earth Institute, a think-tank devoted to all sorts of ideological flim-flammery, including the notion that chemical farming is what Africa most desperately needs to relieve hunger.

Another economics professor/celebrity at Columbia University is Joseph Stiglitz who is one of the experts interviewed in “The End of Poverty?” Although Stiglitz is obviously not an unrepentant Marxist like me, he certainly makes a lot more sense than Sachs since he focuses more on changing social structures rather than Bono-Sachs’s style aid. One has to wonder however whether Stiglitz still believes that China, his model for the developing world, is still viable. In the past year or so, over 25 million workers have been fired from their jobs in the coastal export manufacturing zone and forced to return to the impoverished countryside.

In the final analysis, it is only central planning and production for human need rather than profit that can relieve such suffering. In years past, this kind of proposal would have been dismissed as “socialism”. With the financial crisis tearing the world apart, that might not be a scare word any longer. As a recent cover of Newsweek put it, we are all socialists now. Of course, my idea of socialism varies greatly from Newsweek, but at least the newsweekly allows people like me to get our foot in the door. One must assume that after another two or three years of growing unemployment worldwide, that door will be smashed down by colossal social forces led by the poor people Diaz so generously gave a voice to.

I also strongly urge you to watch Diaz’s “The Empire in Africa”, which is available from Netflix. This movie is about the civil war in Sierra Leone and, unlike most documentaries about suffering in Africa, indicts the imperialists and the UN. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

As the violence deepened in Sierra Leone, the UN “came to the rescue”, just as the expensive full-page savedarfur.org ads in the NY Times call for now. Using Western funding from aboveground and clandestine sources, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected President with a clear mandate to stop the killing. A long-time employee of the UN, he had the enthusiastic support of the US, Great Britain and France who understand how to manipulate the international body to their own devices. He also had support from ECOMOG, an armed force made up of contingents from a number of African nations, with Nigeria supplying most of the muscle. In other words, Sierra Leone was a model for what is called for in Darfur. As those who urge “humanitarian” intervention in Darfur keep telling us, an effective fighting force made up UN and or African nations is all that is needed to save innocent lives. Nobody should have any such illusions after watching “The Empire in Africa”.

“The End of Poverty?” website


October 22, 2008

Latin America and the dependency theory debate

Filed under: Introduction to Marxism class,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

After Robert Brenner wrote his attack on dependency theory in the 1977 NLR, the impact was immediate. Marxists in the academy found the appeal to return to a class-based Marxism very seductive, especially among Latin American specialists. The Marxist-oriented journal called Latin American Perspectives became consumed with debates between supporters of Robert Brenner and Andre Gunder Frank almost immediately and the summer and fall issues of 1981 were combined to discuss the Dependency and Marxism debate.

Unfortunately, the archives of Latin American Perspectives are only available to those with a subscription to JSTOR, but I have selected two fairly representative items from the two sides for your review.

John Weeks, a supporter of the Brenner approach even though he does not mention Brenner by name (others do), contributed an article titled “The Differences Between Materialist Theory and Dependency Theory and Why They Matter”. Before presenting his article and my interspersed comments, I want to offer some personal reflections even though their relationship to the matter at hand might seem tangential.

In 1990 I organized a debate on behalf of the NY Nicaragua Network just prior to the Nicaraguan elections that would result in the FSLN being voted out of office. It was not hard to figure out that Paul Berman was the ideal candidate to speak against the FSLN. This Village Voice self-described anarchist (he now calls himself a liberal) had been writing attacks on the FSLN for a number of years, all in the spirit of casting the Sandinistas as enemies of true working-class socialism. Berman evolved into a cold war type liberal subsequently and gained some notoriety as a “leftist” supporter of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our good friend Richard Seymour has a chapter on Berman in his forthcoming book from Verso that I am awaiting with bated breath.

For the pro-FSLN perspective, I gave Michael Moore a call and he was more than happy to debate Berman. Just a year or so earlier Moore had been fired from Mother Jones for refusing to print one of Berman’s hatchet jobs on the FSLN and was looking forward to a chance to nail him. Although I cannot remember exactly why we decided not to go with Moore, we instead extended an invitation to John Weeks on the advice of NACLA, the journal on Latin America that had not yet degenerated into the kind of mixture of civil society bullshit and State Department liberalism that fills its pages today.

Berman spoke first and was obviously well-prepared, even if his ideas were bogus.

When Weeks began to speak (I was chairing the meeting), I was astonished to see that he did not have anything written down and just “winged it” for 15 minutes. The gist of his presentation was that the FSLN was no different than the PRI in Mexico and there was never any reason for imperialism to be so determined to overthrow it. He characterized it as bureaucratic and mildly social democratic, etc. In other words, in accepting our invitation to defend the FSLN, this knucklehead did not have the common decency to state that he was some kind of ultraleft opponent of the FSLN. Following the meeting, a group of us headed over to a nearby bar where a savvy veteran of the Central America solidarity movement whispered to me that Weeks was some kind of Maoist.

The reason Weeks was so dismissive of the Sandinista revolution was that it was not “class” oriented enough for him. There were far too few industrial workers in the vanguard and far too many small ranchers and members of the “informal economy” to satisfy the litmus test of those who had mastered their Grundrisse.

The main difference between the dependency theorists and those influenced by Brenner was over the question-in my opinion-whether national oppression was a viable category in Marxist terms. I have written about this at some length here and invite you to have a look at some point.

Continue reading

August 13, 2008

More Mariátegui

I have posted 3 more chapters from José Carlos Mariátegui’s “Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality” to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list. This makes 5 out of 7 from arguably his most important work that is both out of print and not represented on the Internet until now. Thank god for the scanner. Let’s hope that the University of Texas Press has no objection to their intellectual property rights being violated. They, after all, allowed this seminal Marxist text to languish.

Chapter 2 is titled “The Problem of the Indian” and serves as a kind of introduction to the much longer chapter 3 on “The Problem of Land”. Suffice it to say that for Mariátegui the 2 “problems” are interrelated as demonstrated by the very first sentence: “Any treatment of the problem of the Indian–written or verbal–that fails or refuses to recognize it as a socio-economic problem is but a sterile, theoretical exercise destined to be completely discredited.” He goes further and identifies describes the “socio-economic problem” as revolving around land: “A fresh approach to the problem of the Indian, therefore, ought to be much more concerned with the consequences of the land tenure system than with drawing up protective legislation.” To understand how the oppression of the Indian is related to land tenure, I direct your attention to chapter 3.

Chapter 5 deals with “The Religious Factor” and deserves to be required reading for anybody who is trying to understand the issues being posed by political Islam, “liberation theology” in Latin America, etc. Using the Incan religion as a point of departure, Mariátegui has some very interesting things to say about Catholicism, Protestantism and the rise of capitalism.

For Mariátegui, Catholicism was the handmaiden to the Spanish sword, which in comparison to Protestantism was inimical to capitalist growth. Clearly, the influence of Max Weber is at work in his thinking:

In general, the experience of the West furnishes concrete evidence of the close association of capitalism and Protestantism. Protestantism appears in history as the spiritual yeast of the capitalist process. The Protestant Reformation contained the essence, the seed, of the liberal state. Protestantism as a religious movement and liberalism as a political trend were related to the development of the factors of a capitalist economy. Facts support this argument. Capitalism and industrialism have flourished nowhere else as they have in the Protestant countries. The capitalist economy has reached its peak in England, the United States, and Germany. Within these countries, people of Catholic faith have instinctively clung to their rustic tastes and habits. (Catholic Bavaria is also rural.) No Catholic country has reached a high level of industrialization.

I don’t agree with this. In my view, the “backwardness” of Catholic nations in Europe is only relative. Mexico City, for example, was about as industrialized as Boston in 1776. I cover this in depth here.

That being said, it must be acknowledged that Mariátegui—as always—is capable of seeing both sides of an argument:

Neoscholastics insist on disputing or minimizing the influence of the Reformation on capitalist development, claiming that Thomism already had laid down the principles of bourgeois economics.18 Sorel has acknowledged the services rendered to Western civilization by Saint Thomas in his realistic approach to the dogma in science. He has especially stressed the Thomist concept that “human law cannot change the legal nature of things, which is derived from their economic content.”19 But if Saint Thomas brought Catholicism to this level of understanding economics, the Reformation forged the moral weapons of the bourgeois revolution, opening the way to capitalism. The neoscholastic concept can be easily explained. Neothomism is bourgeois but not capitalist. Just as socialism is not the same thing as the proletariat, capitalism is not the same thing as the bourgeoisie. Capitalism is the order, the civilization, the spirit born of the bourgeoisie, which existed long before and only later gave its name to an entire historical era.

Finally, on the question of religion, Mariátegui neatly dissects the liberal anti-clericalism of his day, which anticipated the bleatings of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens today:

But capitalism has lost its revolutionary spirit and so this thesis has been overtaken by events.32 Socialism, according to the conclusions of historical materialism, not to be confused with philosophical materialism, considers that ecclesiastical forms and religious doctrines are produced and sustained by the socio-economic structure. Therefore, it is concerned with changing the latter and not the former. Socialism regards mere anti-clerical activity as a liberal bourgeois pastime. In Europe, anti-clericalism is characteristic of countries where the Protestant Reformation has not unified civil and religious conscience and where political nationalism and Roman universalism live in either open or latent conflict, which compromise can moderate but not halt or resolve.

Finally, chapter 6 on “Regionalism and Centralism”, although written about Peru, applies equally to Bolivia today. In the 1920s, Peru faced the same geographical-political divide facing Evo Morales today. Lima, the capital, was home to wealthy white descendants of Spanish colonizers just as is the 4 secessionist regions in Bolivia and was situated on the lowlands facing the Pacific. In both Peru and Bolivia, the indigenous peoples lived in the highlands. And in both instances, class politics tended to be reflected in debates over regionalism versus centralism. In the passage below, Mariátegui refers to gamonalismo,. a term that he uses interchangeably with feudalism. As I have said elsewhere, I don’t find the term feudalism that useful in describing the upper classes in Latin America but on everything else I am in accord with Mariátegui:

Assuming that “the problem of the Indian” and the “agrarian question” take priority over any problem relative to the mechanism of the regime if not to the structure of the state, it is absolutely impossible to consider the question of regionalism or, more precisely, of administrative decentralization from standpoints not subordinate to the need to solve in a radical and organic way the first two problems. A decentralization that is not directed toward this goal is not even worth discussion.

And decentralization in itself, simply as a political and administrative reform, would not signify any progress toward solution of the “problem of the Indian” and the “problem of land,” which fundamentally are one and the same. On the contrary, decentralization carried out for no other reason than to authorize a degree of autonomy to the regions or departments would increase the power of gamonalismo against any solution in the interest of the Indian masses. To become convinced of this, it is enough to ask oneself what caste, what class, what category opposes the redemption of the Indian. There is only one, categorical, answer: gamonalismo, feudalism, bossism. Therefore, is there any doubt that the more autonomous a regional administration of gamonales and caciques, the more they would sabotage and resist any effective attempt to redress the wrongs done to the Indian?

There can be no illusions. The decent groups in the cities will never prevail against gamonalismo in regional administration. The experience of more than a century has taught us what to expect of the possibility that in the near future a democratic system will function in Peru that will fulfill, at least on paper, the Jacobin principle of “popular sovereignty.” The rural masses, or the Indian communities in any case, would remain outside suffrage and its results. Therefore, even if only because the absent are never right—les absents ont toujours tort—the organisms and authorities that would be created “through election,” but without their vote, would have neither the ability nor the knowledge to do them justice. Who would be so naive as to imagine that, within the present economic and political situation, the regions would be governed by “universal suffrage”?

Read chapters 2, 5 and 6 in their entirety here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marxism_class/

July 27, 2008

Tecnica

Filed under: Africa,Latin America,science — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

Last week I finally digitized the Tecnica video at Columbia Teacher College’s Instructional Media Lab and uploaded it to http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4498574155037161575&hl=en Since it is 20 minutes long, I really didn’t feel like chopping it in two to fit youtube’s 10 minute limit. Apparently youtube is on the verge of eliminating this restriction but not quite yet.

I was president of the Tecnica board in the late 1980s through 1992 when it went belly-up. Relying heavily on donations from liberal and radical foundations, it was victimized by the FSLN getting voted out of office in 1990. Nicaragua was no longer sexy. We had already launched a technical aid program for the ANC and the frontline states but it was not well-established enough to survive the downturn in funding.

In 1984 I went down to Nicaragua to observe the elections with a delegation from the Guardian newspaper, a weekly radical publication that went out of business in 1992. Nothing in my experience in the SWP prepared us for what a living revolution would be like. The same kind of peasants who were fighting for land in El Salvador were now enjoying a much better life on cooperatives in liberated Nicaragua. Health care was now universally available and literacy programs were making people real participants in the political life of the country.

When one of the members of my delegation found out that I was a computer programmer, he slipped me a leaflet that some people in the Bay Area had put together. They were looking for computer programmers and other skilled professionals to work in Nicaragua. After the Sandinistas had taken over, a lot of the better paid workers had fled to Miami just as had happened in Cuba after 1959. As soon as I got back from Nicaragua, I called the number on the leaflet and spoke to Michael Urmann, an economist who had launched the project called Tecnica. I agreed to go back to Nicaragua for two weeks with a delegation of about 15 other technical specialists and give some classes on structured programming techniques. I brushed up on my high school Spanish and returned with my course notes.

I ended up teaching at the Central Bank in Nicaragua, their version of the Federal Reserve. About one out of four students seemed like committed Sandinistas but the rest were like young people anywhere. They simply wanted a better life. Like young computer programmers everywhere, the job was a means to an end.

I was all set to take on a new job at the Ministry of Construction supporting the largest mainframe in the country, which was about 1/10th the size of the computers I was used to working on at home. The people at this agency were more political than at the Central Bank and I was knocked out to hear revolutionary folk songs being sung over lunch. Things were never like that at my jobs at Houston and Boston banks.

On my last night in Nicaragua, Michael Urmann persuaded me to go back to New York and start a chapter of Tecnica there. At that point they were primarily based in the Bay Area and he was trying to build a national organization. He had hopes that we could eventually become a kind of radical version of the Peace Corps. He needed a political veteran like me to get kick-start things on the East Coast. Largely in recognition of my organizing skills, I was named President of Tecnica after it became incorporated as a nonprofit.

In trips out to the West Coast, I got to know Michael Urmann well. Like me, he was a veteran of the sectarian left and around the same age as me. As a member of the Maoist Progressive Labor party, he went to work in a warehouse in the 1960s long before the SWP made its “turn”. After a few months of backbreaking work with little to show for it politically, he dropped out of the PLP and went back to grad school. We had lots of laughs when we exchanged stories about factory work. We also laughed at the absurdity of turf wars between the Maoists and the Trotskyists in the 1960s. Like Peter Camejo, we had moved on to a more sensible place.

The project flourished through most of the late 1980s. Every month we sent down about twenty volunteers to work with Nicaraguan agencies, including the engineer who had responsibility for repairing electrical pylons blown up by the contras.

We also worked with a young American engineer named Ben Linder who found his way down to Nicaragua on his own. We raised money and provided some technical assistance for a small-scale hydroelectric project he had initiated in contra-infested northern Nicaragua.

On April 28, 1987 Ben was killed by contras while working on the small-scale hydroelectric dam that was his pet project. It sent shock waves through the movement and drove home the risks of working in Nicaragua. As a sign that we would not be intimidated, volunteer applications doubled in the months following Ben’s murder.

We received another shock the very same month. FBI agents went to the personnel offices at the workplace of twelve returned Tecnica volunteers and called them in for interviews in front of their boss. They were told that Tecnica was at the center of an espionage ring that was running high technology out of Nicaragua to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Anybody who had ever been to Nicaragua would realize how ridiculous this charge was. There was only one elevator in the entire country.

A number of important newspapers and politicians condemned the investigation and forced the FBI to end its harassment. This opening paragraph from a May 19 1987 Washington Post editorial was typical:

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation, including Michael Urmann. We were to meet with the African National Congress and leaders of some of the “frontline” states, including Mozambique, in order to see if an expansion of our volunteer program into Africa was feasible.

Since the ANC was still in exile in this point (apartheid was on the ropes but not ended), we ended up in Lusaka, Zambia where most of the top officials lived, including Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa.

We were invited to his house for a meeting to figure out whether there was a basis for future work. Mbeki lived in a two story house in a rather upscale neighborhood that was unlike the rest of the city. I noticed a Mercedes-Benz in the driveway.

His life-style was different from the average Zambian’s. On the way over to his house in a cab, Urmann asked the driver why so many office buildings were uncompleted. Since housing was one of his academic interests, such matters were always uppermost in his mind. The cabbie glared at him and said, “The buildings are not finished because you people took all the money with you.”

After our discussion with Mbeki ended, his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC.

Me: Mrs. Mbeki, you need to put in a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech.

Zanele: What is the B drive?

Me: It is right here (I pointed to the slot.) Let me take care of it for you. (I formatted the diskette and got everything in order.) You are all set now.

Zanele: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. I was so desperate.

I felt like my existence had finally been vindicated. Other people would be chosen to make monumental speeches. My purpose was to make sure that the speech would not disappear in some technical black hole.

On June 10, 1987, a couple of months after Ben Linder’s murder and the FBI sweep, NY Newsday did a big story on Nicaragua activists and included a mini-profile on me. The author, a likeable fellow named Jonathan Mandell who was clearly sympathetic, wrote about me:

Lou Proyect works in a Wall Street investment bank, one of 25 “database administrators” who sit in a numbing row of fluorescent-blanched cubicles and stares at computers until the end of the day. It is the latest variation on the kind of job he has held for 19 years. Tacked to the wall of his cubicle is the latest article cut out from PC Week, a personal computer trade magazine: “IBM’s PS/2s aren’t all that revolutionary.” Neither, he says, is Lou Proyect.

I can’t even remember what point I was trying to make at the time. Was I trying to say that I was not some stupid sectarian blathering about revolution? Or was I just trying to make sure that Goldman did not decide to fire me after the article appeared?

Goldman did eventually get rid of me but it had nothing to do with politics, but the need to cut costs after the stock market crash in 1987–although I suppose that this is political as well. After 3 years of consulting I ended up at Columbia University where I lived happily ever after.

January 18, 2008

A sectarian version of the lessons of Nicaragua

Filed under: Latin America,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Typical Nicaraguan home: Permanent Revolution
could have brought peace and prosperity, however

As somebody who was very involved with Nicaragua solidarity in the 1980s, I was curious to see what Claudio Villas had to say in an article titled “Nicaragua: Lessons of a country that did not finish its revolution” that appears on the In Defense of Marxism website. For those who are not familiar with the Internationalist Marxist Tendency (IMT) that produces this website, a word or two of introduction might be necessary.

The IMT is a fairly orthodox Trotskyist grouping that is the result of a split by the late Ted Grant and Alan Woods from the so-called Militant Tendency now led by Peter Taaffe. Both groups project themselves as the core members of a Fourth International that will supposedly vindicate Leon Trotsky’s political legacy. Neither group has shown the slightest interest in rethinking what the Bolshevik experience might mean in a context other than turn-of-the-century Czarist Russia, but the Grant-Woods tendency has demonstrated an enthusiasm for the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela that does not fit exactly into the October 1917 template.

Villas states that his article studies “the lessons of the Nicaraguan Revolution” in order to help “understand the ongoing processes in Venezuela today.” As becomes obvious in no time at all, Nicaragua becomes one of those negative examples that the Trotskyist movement dotes on. Forever wagging its finger at the mass movement, it assumes that calling attention to a betrayal is conducive to correct revolutionary practice. This is what I call the subway preacher school of Marxism. Once a week or so, I get stuck on the number one train going up to Columbia University with a free-lance preacher who lectures the subway car about the perils of sin. Let me put it this way, preaching against sin or reformist betrayal might make the preacher feel good but it hardly changes people’s behavior.

I was struck by the similarities between Villas’s article and those I have read about Cuba in the Trotskyist press, which revolve around the incapacity and unwillingness of the guerrillas to link up to the working class. As one example, he writes, “For the first time, the workers in the cities mobilised in a massive and independent manner with their own political slogans. But because there was no revolutionary leadership of the workers’ movement this meant that all the attention and expectations of the working class became focused on the FSLN, in spite of the fact that the Sandinistas only had 500 armed guerrillas.”

Keeping in mind that the total population of Nicaragua in the 1970s was about 3 million, an army of 500 combatants would amount to something like 50,000 in a country the size of the USA. What are the chances that a rebel army this size could be put together without a massive and powerful movement in the cities? Next to zero, I would say.

Part one of Villas’s article is filled with idealist errors that are hardly worth commenting on. He analyzes everything that went wrong in Nicaragua as a function of an incorrect theory, namely a belief in the progressive bourgeoisie that the FSLN picked up from the CP. It includes a patronizing swipe at both Augusto Sandino and Carlos Fonseca, who launched the FSLN in a bid to consummate Sandino’s struggle against imperialism in the 1920s. Both men, unlike the Grant-Woods tendency, believed in collaborating with the “national-colonial bourgeoisie”. For his part, Villas understands the way forward even though the misguided reformists will not listen:

The extinguishing of capitalism in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949 and in Cuba in 1960 demonstrated that social and economic development in the underdeveloped countries could only be achieved on a non-capitalist economic basis, in other words, on a socialist economic basis that involved a break with private property and the taking over of the means of production and finance. There are no exceptions to this law.

When you reduce this paragraph to its essence, you will discover that it contains a tautology that can be reduced to a few words: “Socialism can only be achieved through socialist revolution”. Keeping in mind that everybody on the socialist left, from Alan Woods to the late Gus Hall, agrees that socialism is the goal, the only real difference would be about the need for revolution and for resolute struggle against the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the intellectual recognition of such a task does not translate easily into practical politics.

For its over 75 year existence in Latin America (not to speak of the world), Trotskyism has remained a very marginal force, including in Nicaragua itself where voices similar to Villas’s were heard. Why did the FSLN gain the allegiance of the masses and why did the Trotskyists stay small and irrelevant? I would suggest that the appeal of both Sandino’s movement and the FSLN would be lost on the comrades of the In Defense of Marxism website, who have a mechanical understanding of Bolshevism. Leaving aside the question of the FSLN’s “reformism”, there is something quite different about the way that they got started and the way that Villas believes revolutionary parties should be built.

Unlike the IMT, the FSLN rooted its program and language in the Nicaraguan framework. By utilizing Augusto Sandino as a symbol of their revolution, they tapped into the psyche of the Nicaraguan people. They also eschewed the iconography of the Russian Revolution, which is a dead giveaway for a sectarian mindset. For example, the IMT home page has images of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky on the left and a hammer-and-sickle on the right. These images might appeal to those “in the know” but not to the average Nicaraguan peasant who went to church every Sunday. Whatever mistakes the FSLN made (and they were plenty), they did not make the mistake of such sectarianism. As we look back at the wreckage of the 20th century revolutionary movement, we have to come to terms with sins of commission and sins of omission–to return once again to the example of the subway preacher. Everybody knows that the CP’s have sins of commission to repent for, but what about the Trotskyists? By maintaining sectarian habits that keep them small and marginal, don’t they have a responsibility for the failures of revolutions to succeed in countries where they have a toehold? These “sins of omission” will prevent you from getting into communist heaven.

Part two of Villas’s article consists mainly of a lecture derived from Lenin’s “State and Revolution”, whose sage advice the FSLN refused to pay attention to. Instead of setting up Soviets, creating militias, nationalizing Nicaraguan industry, dividing up the land and extending the socialist revolution beyond their borders, they were content to operate what amounted to a Nicaraguan version of Kerensky’s government, which soon fell apart because of its inner contradictions. He writes:

The Sandinista leadership ruled the country together with the treacherous national bourgeoisie during the first months of the revolution. However, the economic crisis continued to get worse. But the bourgeoisie, by now reassured that the FSLN leadership had halted the revolution, left the economic problems for the Sandinistas to sort out. The first move of the FSLN in the National Reconstruction government (made up of just 5 people) was to install a State Council. This was a bourgeois-democratic body made up of 33 members in which all the social, political and trade union forces that accepted the Sandinista leadership were represented. In 1984, this parliament was transformed into the Nicaraguan National Assembly, by now a bourgeois parliament with a leftwing majority.

In this manner, the FSLN leadership preserved the traditional parliament and government structures of the capitalist state. Executive power was concentrated in the hands of the National Directorate which was chaired by the President of the Republic. In 1984 in a few days more than 80% of the population over the age of 16 registered on the electoral register. The election results revealed the huge support of the masses for the FSLN.

One of the most remarkable things about this entire exercise is the almost entirely absent reference to American imperialism and the terrorist army it funded and organized. The word “contra” is mentioned infrequently and not assigned its proper weight. Villas even blames the FSLN for giving backhanded support for the terrorists: “While the government was subsidising the private sector through tax cuts to get its support and collaboration, the capitalists boycotted the economy and supported the Contras!” He also thought that it was not really responsible for the collapse of the revolution: “Despite their treacherous role, it was not the fascist Contra paramilitaries that defeated the revolution. Popular resistance had demoralised the Contra and they had been cornered by the mid-1980s.” Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan people were so demoralized after a decade of war that they gave their vote to a candidate supported by the USA who promised an end to the war if and only if she was elected.

Most people in touch with reality understand that nothing can stop a country that is 100 times the size of a country it wants to destroy from its goal, including the correct application of the Permanent Revolution. In 2006, the GDP of Nicaragua was 5 billion dollars, while that of the USA was 13 trillion, or 13,000 billion. Try to imagine what an economy that is nearly 3000 times as large as the economy of its victim can do. Apparently, the IMT cannot. Even if the FSLN had carried out the strictures set down by Villas, the revolution was doomed from the beginning. It occurred at the very moment that the USSR was transforming itself into a capitalist society and had no interest in lining up with an enemy of its new friends in Washington, DC.

Villas’s solution to Nicaragua’s economic woes are laughable: “The narrowness of the productive base of a country as small as Nicaragua, which had fewer inhabitants than Caracas or Havana, meant that to stimulate genuine development what was required was a truly revolutionary initiative such as the expulsion of the bourgeoisie, and the establishment of a Socialist Federation with Cuba.” A Socialist Federation with Cuba? Good grief. It was just around this period that the socialist foundations of the Russian economy were being dismantled and support for Cuba cut off. This led to an “emergency period” that most commentators viewed as coming close to destroying Cuba as well as Nicaragua. Talk of a “socialist federation” is simply empty rhetoric. Words are cheap for a sectarian group that has never had responsibility anywhere in the world–and never will–for putting food on a worker’s table.

I have my own analysis of why the Sandinista revolution collapsed and would recommend that people read it in its entirety here.

I would only like to conclude with this excerpt:

Trotsky sharpened his insights as a participant and leader of the uprising of 1905, which in many ways was a dress-rehearsal for the 1917 revolution. He wrote “Results and Prospects” to draw the lessons of 1905. Virtually alone among leading Russian socialists, he rejected the idea that workers holding state power would protect private property:

“The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie.”

Does not this accurately describe the events following the Bolshevik revolution in October, 1917? The workers took the socialist path almost immediately. If this alone defined the shape of revolutions to come, then Trotsky would appear as a prophet of the first magnitude.

Before leaping to this conclusion, we should consider Trotsky’s entire argument. Not only would the workers adopt socialist policies once in power, their ability to maintain these policies depended on the class-struggle outside of Russia, not within it. He is emphatic:

“But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.”

While there is disagreement between Lenin and Trotsky on the exact character of the Russian revolution, there is none over the grim prospects for socialism in an isolated Russia. We must keep this uppermost in our mind when we consider the case of Nicaragua. Well-meaning Trotskyist comrades who castigate the Sandinistas for not carrying out permanent revolution should remind themselves of the full dimensions of Trotsky’s theory. According to this theory, Russia was a beachhead for future socialist advances. If these advances did not occur, Russia would perish. Was Nicaragua a beachhead also? If socialism could not survive in a vast nation as Russia endowed with immense resources, what were Nicaragua’s prospects, a nation smaller than Brooklyn, New York?

September 3, 2007

Salvador Allende

Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 4:02 pm

Made in 2004, Patricio Guzmán’s “Salvador Allende” makes its debut at New York’s Anthology Film Archives from September 5-13. Guzmán, who fled Chile after Pinochet’s coup, also directed “The Battle for Chile,” a film trilogy on Allende’s government that I have not seen. Although there is a tendency to sidestep painful political lessons from the 1973 coup in “Salvador Allende,” I strongly urge New Yorkers to see it. It is an extremely moving account of the life and death of a socialist politician, whose career would seem to speak to the contemporary situation in Latin America, where a democratic transition to socialism seems to be unfolding to one degree or another in Venezuela. Given the hostility of the US and the upper classes in Allende’s Chile and Hugo Chavéz’s Venezuela, a documentary such as “Salvador Allende” offers much food for thought.

It is obvious from “Salvador Allende” and from reviews of “Battle for Chile” (a film that I have not seen) that Guzmán is a partisan of the Popular Unity government, a coalition of working class and bourgeois parties that campaigned successfully for Allende in 1970. Despite this, the film is not uncritical. In a gut-wrenching segment that occurs toward the end of the film, a group of worker-militants–now in advanced middle-age–think back ruefully on the period and wonder why they were so ill-prepared to resist the coup. One, barely holding back tears, says, “We should have done more to strengthen the cords.” As somebody who followed the events in Chile closely between 1970 and 1973, this reference was obscure even to me. What was a cord?

In the course of looking at some studies of the Popular Unity government days after seeing the film, I discovered the answer. Cord is the nickname for cordónes, the neighborhood and factory based committees that Chileans recognized as a form of “people’s power.” If organized and armed on a nation-wide basis, this institution and others like it could have successfully beaten back the coup. Unfortunately, Allende’s Socialist Party and the Communists were suspicious of the grass roots movement and relied almost exclusively on official state institutions such as parliament and the army to promote an agenda that while progressive stopped short of the elimination of private property.

“Salvador Allende” is filled with oblique references to this failure but focuses more on Allende the individual, whose tragic inability to remain in power obviously flows from his political roots. In one of the film’s very revealing interviews, the former mayor of Allende’s hometown Valparaiso, a self-described Communist and friend, states that Allende identified with the values of the French Revolution and never once defended Marxist ideas in private conversations, even though he was familiar with the literature. Another interviewee states that Allende’s earliest ideological influence was an Italian anarchist shoemaker. These two accounts add up to a portrait of somebody committed to the ideas of freedom, but not in the best position to realize them through the exercise of state power.

The film excels at bringing to life the long journey Allende made in Chilean politics. Contrary to the impression many people–including me–have of the Popular Unity government being something unique in Chilean history, the first popular front government was elected in 1938, a Latin American counterpart of the Spanish and French Socialist Party-led coalition governments. On that occasion, the 30 year old Allende became Minister of Health. Like Che Guevara, Allende was a trained physician. After the popular front was voted out of office, Allende continued to run for regional and national offices for the remainder of his political career. The film includes fascinating scenes of the young Allende speaking to crowds of working class people with joyful expressions on their face. If Allende lacked a clear vision of how their interests could be defended through the use of state power, he at least was always forceful about what those interests were.

If Allende was torn between revolutionary and reformist impulses, there was little doubt that his main coalition partners in the CP of Chile were far more dedicated to staying within the framework of bourgeois democracy and deferring to the rule of capital. On June 20, 1972, the NY Times editorialized:

President Allende has moved to resolve a severe crisis within his Popular Unity coalition in Chile by rejecting the radical counsel of his own Socialist party and adopting the more moderate and conciliatory approach urged by the Communists. In thus shifting back toward the center of Chile’s political spectrum, Dr. Allende has reduced the danger of large-scale civil strife and given his revamped Government its best chance to revive a sagging economy.

The Communists hurl such epithets as ‘infantile’ and ‘elitist’ at the M.I.R. and condemn its illegal seizures of farms and factories. They urge consolidation, rather than rapid extension, of the Allende Government’s economic and social programs, negotiations on constitutional reform with the opposition Christian Democrats and a working relationship with private businesses. Dr. Allende has now taken this road in an effort to curb unemployment and inflation and to boost production.

Whatever unwillingness he had to confront big business within Chile’s borders, Salvador Allende never backed down from global capital in various speeches, including one made to the United Nations on September 4, 1972 speech to the United Nations. Guzmán correctly points out that this speech was one of the first to recognize the problems of “globalization” in language that sounds strikingly to Naomi Klein or Walden Bello:

We are faced by a direct confrontation between the large transnational corporations and the states. The corporations are interfering in the fundamental political, economic and military decisions of the states. The corporations are global organizations that do not depend on any state and whose activities are not controlled by, nor are they accountable to any parliament or any other institution representative of the collective interest. In short, all the world political structure is being undermined. The dealers don’t have a country. The place where they may be does not constitute any kind of link; the only thing they are interested in is where they make profits.

Fundamentally, there was a disjunction between Allende’s obvious commitment to ending this dependency on imperialist corporations and his willingness to empower the only class in society that had the power to do so. In a delicate balancing act between a radicalized proletariat and peasantry and the more privileged classes in Chile and their American benefactors, Allende hoped to make incremental changes that would tip the scales in favor of the poor. Unfortunately, the rich and important sectors of the middle class would not respect parliamentary rules and began to plot to overthrow Allende, just as has been the case in Venezuela. While Guzmán is quite penetrating when it comes to the machinations of the rich, he tends to hold back when it comes to contradictions within the left.

Apparently, there is much more willingness in Guzmán’s “The Battle for Chile” to examine the clash between the Popular Unity government and its base. The World Socialist Website, which tends to sectarianism frequently despite its generally astute political analysis, was quite generous in its review of “The Battle for Chile,” which it regarded as a “heartfelt testament to Pinochet’s victims.” It made clear that the ambivalence about and or hostility to “people’s power” within the upper circles of Allende’s government were shared by the director, whose remarks in a Q&A following a screening of the film in London, demonstrated an unwillingness to come to terms with Mao’s observation that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun:

Guzmán described the trilogy at a question and answer session after the screening as a tribute to the Popular Unity government period and Allende particularly. This was clearly the intention of The Coup, but because of the way the film was made, a more critical picture of the situation in Chile still emerges. It is clear, for example, that the workers were a huge and potent force. In the middle of July workers took the streets of the Vicuna McKenna district. In the ensuing stand-off the mayor of Santiago had to be called in to move the police two blocks away. Workers are repeatedly seen demanding arms to defend Allende, arms which Allende was denying them. An old member of the Communist Party is seen warning that if the workers lose it will be like Spain after the civil war.

The issue of arms crops up repeatedly. Allende, who refused to create a workers militia, dismissed his police from La Moneda before the bombardment began, leaving only 40 bodyguards. As the coup approached, the military stepped up weapons searches in order to gauge the strength of the workers. At the question session, Guzmán expressly disagreed that the refusal to arm the workers had been a mistake. It would have been impossible, he said, because the military would have known it was happening. In any case, it was already known that the military were preparing a coup. In other words, once it began the coup was inevitably going to be a success. Yet even in the last few days before the coup, the streets of Santiago were filled with mass demonstrations in defence of Allende.

Despite both coming to power through the ballot, there are significant differences between Allende and Hugo Chavéz. First of all, Chavéz was a military officer himself with broad connections to leftist officers, perhaps the most striking characteristic of Venezuelan politics where an Air Force general is described by Richard Gott in “Shadow of the Liberator” as having “Trotskyist” politics. By contrast, Air Force officers in the US tend to be followers of the Christian Right.

But more importantly, the primary ideological inspiration for Chavéz’s movement is revolutionary socialism rather than 1930s style popular frontism. According to Gott, a number of Chavéz’s primary influences were Marxists to the left of the CP. In declaring for a 21st century socialism, Chavéz has made repeated references to the failure of Soviet socialism in terms that reflect the influences of the Trotskyist movement. Of course, as is always the case with Chavéz, he makes up his own mind based on what he thinks is right. This includes his willingness to stand up to the bourgeois parties in Venezuela, unlike Allende who kept making concession after concession to the Christian Democrats who were plotting his overthrow. To show that he was deferential to their interests, he kept bringing military men into his cabinet and even put Pinochet in charge of public security not 6 months before Pinochet overthrew his government.

Guzmán reflects a tendency that was very strong on the Chilean left and that even included the radical guerrillas of the MIR. It found itself torn between support for Allende’s government and support for the “people’s power” in the street that could have been Chile’s salvation.

In reviewing one of the better leftwing critiques of the Popular Unity government (the aptly titled “Chile: The State and Revolution” by Ian Roxborough, Philip O’Brien and Jackie Roddick), I came across the words of ordinary Chilean workers from this period reflecting an acute awareness of the danger they faced. This interview with a “Socialist militant” from the Cordón San Joaquín appeared in Chile Hoy a month before the coup:

Chile Hoy: What do the majority of the comrades in the cordon think of the new cabinet? [one that included military officers]:

Socialist militant from Cordon San Joaquin: We have not discussed it yet. But certainly people are very confused. In fact, the demonstration today lacks a sense of combativity, there is no common purpose, and there are no clear slogans. One can see that the masses don’t look on the incorporation of military men into the cabinet with much sympathy. There is no clarity. The parties should tell the masses what their reasons are for choosing this road. Neither Calderon nor Figueroa (both leaders of the CUT, and ex members of the government, the first Socialist, the second Communist) filled this need in their speeches. And it would have been difficult for them to do it, in this climate of agitation. The president of Cordon Vicuna Mackenna, where the movement to take over factories after June 29th was strongest:

We saw this cabinet as a betrayal of the working class. It shows that the government is still vacillating and has no confidence in the working class. The generals in the cabinet are a guarantee for the capitalists, just as they were in October, a guarantee for Vilarin (leader of the striking lorry owners) and not for the working class. We’ve already been through this solution: More tyres and trucks for Vilarin . . . the same thing again. For this reason, we think that the situation is quite dangerous, because we think the army’s searches will continue and we believe that many of those now fighting will fall, including those of us who are at this moment struggling for People’s Power.

Youtube: the final speech of Salvador Allende

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,525 other followers